Posts tagged with "Blair Kamin":

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Why we need architecture critics more than ever

Earlier this week we learned that Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne would be stepping down to take on the city’s newly-created role of Chief Design Officer. The move is a bold, encouraging one that should go a long way toward, as Hawthorne put it, “raising the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city—and the level of civic conversation about those subjects,” through his employment of oversight, advocacy, competitions, forums, and more. But it’s the second part of that statement, regarding civic conversation, that, regardless of this positive development, is under siege in the architecture world. Until Hawthorne is replaced — and given the turmoil at the L.A. Times that’s no certainty— our country will have still fewer regular architectural critics at its major metropolitan news outlets. You can count them on one hand in fact: Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune, John King at the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Lamster at the Dallas Morning News, Julie Iovine at the Wall Street Journal, and Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Beyond these dailies, while New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson and Curbed’s Alexandra Lange offer regular critiques, the New York Times’ critic Michael Kimmelman is M.I.A., the New Yorker has never replaced Paul Goldberger, and at The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, The Nation, The San Jose Mercury News, and Vanity Fair, Robert Campbell, Alastair Gordon, Michael Sorkin, Alan Hess and Goldberger—all talented voices, as are all the people listed above— haven’t appeared for at least half a year.  Papers like The Seattle Times, the Providence Journal, and the Washington Post never replaced their outgoing critics, USA Today has never had one, and half of the nation’s ten largest cities have no critic. It goes without saying that the L.A. Times absolutely must name a new full-time architecture critic, particularly at a time when the nation's second largest city is undergoing unprecedented transformation. Without a well-positioned critical voice, the city will lack a professional to alert them to and analyze these tumultuous built changes, or an advocate to critique decisions that, as they so often do in the developer-driven city, advance private interests over the public good. (Or, on the other end of the spectrum, marginalize design through discourse and work that most people can't relate to.) A critic can and must do much more, from awakening us to triumphs in sustainability and technology to suggesting ways to minimize sprawl or enhance public space. We don’t have to always agree with them, but he or she plays an essential role in instigating and informing a vital public discourse and to alerting us to the critical role design plays in our lives. The same goes for so many of the country’s cities, where nobody is minding the store, architecturally. The results speak for themselves: an overwhelming majority of architecture, both public and private, that’s ok, fine, serviceable. But not enough. It’s an architecture that, like most of our economy, excels for the very richest individuals, corporations and cultural institutions, but offers mediocrity to almost everyone else. Architecture should and must be for everyone, across the board, from housing to retail to schools to government buildings to civic parks. It must help propel our society, and our spirits, forward through inspiration and innovation, not just provide luxury, comfort, or status. Of course, architecture criticism isn’t limited to major commercial outlets. There are fantastic voices at many design periodicals, like this one. But critics at general interest publications still, even in this fractured media landscape, have the greatest ability to reach a wide audience, outside the bubbles of design or niche journalism, who are often preaching to the converted. While the news, sports, fashion, entertainment, and financial media promote and dissect the minutiae of their fields before millions, prompting debate, feedback, and change, the architecture and construction industry — a significant force in overall U.S. GDP—is largely on the fringe of the public conversation. (One example: If you watch March Madness this week, you’ll see more college basketball critics on one telecast than you’ll find countrywide speaking to architecture. Aline Saarinen was once NBC News’ full time architecture critic, but those days of elevated exposure are long gone.) Meanwhile, critics, as with so many players in the ailing journalism world, are increasingly being sidestepped for computerized engines like Rotten Tomatoes or for blogs that aggregate other work and churn out press releases. Or even worse, for abbreviated Facebook or Twitter posts. Algorithms and big data have their place in showing us where we are, but they can’t replace analysis, critique, understanding, common sense, and heart. Having Hawthorne— along with advocates like Deborah Weintraub at the L.A. Bureau of Engineering and Seleta Reynolds at the L.A. Department of Transportation— stationed at City Hall will be bring a keen eye and a valuable voice to the official conversation. But that conversation needs to extend to a much wider public, through experts outside the city payroll. As for his new job, Hawthorne must, as he suggests he will, make his work to improve the civic realm as public as possible, ensuring that design involves everyone, not just those in power. This is a fantastic opportunity for a gifted communicator to bring the public inside a generally opaque realm through his writing, speaking, and facility for public engagement. But he also needs a partner or two (preferably more) in the media, and as more chief design officers (hopefully) pop up around the country, so must they. Architecture is not art in a gallery. Along with landscape architecture and urban design, it is a public profession. It is for the public, not despite them. We need to empower more informed voices to keep it that way.
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Eavesdrop> Sign of the Times: Reflecting on Chicago Summer-Long Trump Tower Saga

Mr. Donald Trump has bestowed upon fair Chicago an ode to his own self-worth, spurring an architectural debate that’s pulled in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Jon Stewart, and plenty more. Grab a bag of popcorn and we’ll catch you up. In June, Trump International Hotel & Tower gained an array of 20-foot-6-inch-tall stainless steel letters spelling T-R-U-M-P, which Curbed called a “big, dumb sign” and Blair Kamin called “as subtle as Godzilla.” Trump didn’t like that, and bashed Kamin as “a lightweight” in the press—Trump, critic of architecture critics! Already reduced in size about 20 percent from its original plans (The Donald makes no small plans), the sign was always part of the 2008 SOM building’s design, although architect Adrian Smith apparently “had nothing to do” with it. It’s a gaudy bit of self-promotion along Chicago’s most visible strip of real estate, but it’s Trump’s name—not his sign itself—that’s really got us riled up. After all we put up with corporate intrusions on our public field of view all the time. In fact, all this public indignation over design has us hopeful: Let’s rise up and take back our public spaces! Or at least sarcastically Instagram the new sign with its ‘T’ strategically cropped out.
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Designed in Chicago, Made in China: Blair Kamin, Chicago designers mull Chinese urbanization

Blair Kamin convened a panel of designers at the Chicago Architecture Foundation last Wednesday for a discussion around themes explored in his recent series “Designed in Chicago, Made in China,” in which the Chicago Tribune architecture critic assessed the effects of that country’s rapid development on urbanism and design. “It’s often said that architecture is the inescapable art,” Kamin said to lead off the talk. “If that’s true then China’s urbanization is the inescapable story.” Joining Kamin were Jonathan D. Solomon, associate dean at the School of Architecture at Syracuse University; Thomas Hussey of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will; and Silas Chiow, SOM’s China director. The event was part of the Tribune's "Press Pass" series. If you haven’t read Kamin's series, you should. It examined contemporary Chinese cities and some U.S. designers thereof, giving special attention to trends in three categories: work, live, and play. Photographer John J. Kim illustrated with visuals. “In regards to street life and public space,” said SOM’s Hussey, “there can be a lack of an attitude towards it.” Long Chinese “megablocks” in Shanghai’s soaring Pudong district facilitate an urbanism not on the street, which few Americans would find walkable, but it has given rise to a kind of vertical urbanism within mixed-use towers and urban malls. Hussey pointed to SOM’s plan for a new financial district in the port area of Tianjin, China’s fourth largest city, which seeks to restore the street life present in Chinese cities before rapid modern development. And while Chinese cities are growing up, they’re also growing out. Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will reminded the audience that in the absence of property taxes, Chinese municipalities make money for new development by selling off land. That creates a ripple effect of rising property values and a pressure to sell that is devouring arable farmland. That trend’s not likely to slow down, said SOM’s Silas Chiow, since part of China’s national strategy to turn the largely manufacturing nation into a consumer country is to continue its rapid urbanization. That pressure helped produce China’s enviable mass transit systems and light rail connectivity, but also a homogeneity of design that some have called dehumanizing. Height limits, uniform standards for south-facing units and other design requirements that by themselves improve standard of living can breed sprawling, cookie-cutter developments that are easy to get lost in. Still, housing projects in China don’t carry the social stigma that they do in the U.S., commented a few panel members, in part because they’ve brought modern amenities to so many. Where China’s urbanization goes from here, however, is an open question. Images of smog-choked skylines remind some of Chicago in 1900, but the situation is not a perfect analogue. For one, the problem of carbon pollution is far more urgent now than it was then, and its sources far more potent. “Will China be the death of the urban world,” asked Kamin at the panel’s close, “or its savior?”
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Is expanding Chicago’s soldier field a hail mary pass?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is reportedly considering a plan to boost capacity at Soldier Field, the city’s football stadium, in a bid to host the Super Bowl. But as the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin laid out in a story Sunday, the play is a Hail Mary. Indianapolis’ new Lucas Oil Stadium, designed by HKS' Bryan Trubey [read AN’s Q+A with Trubey here], hosted the Super Bowl in 2012. Indy has also hosted the NCAA Final Four and the Big Ten football championship. The stadium, which holds 70,000 people under its retractable roof, has spurred nearby development and solidified Indianapolis’ position as a Midwest sports Mecca. The ability to seat 70,000 fans is considered a prerequisite for hosting the Super Bowl, so Soldier Field’s capacity of 61,500 falls short. Soldier Field is currently the smallest stadium in the NFL. But an additional 5,000 would still make the home of the Chicago Bears a tight squeeze for spectators of the country’s biggest sporting event. Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman it’s also about other events:
“I know everybody looks at the Super Bowl. But, look at this hockey event [between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins], which we started last year with college hockey. You look at two years ago when we had the Mexican soccer team here. We have Liverpool coming. These things not only sell out. They sell out fast. And it’s clear that you could do more, given these super events and they would be self-financing and self-sustaining.”
Dirk Lohan, who led the master plan for the stadium’s expansion, told Kamin he’s not optimistic about the preliminary expansion plans. He said the original renovations had to balance capacity and preservation, leading to a design whose structural system could not be updated today without considerable expenses. [Read AN’s Q+A with Dirk Lohan in the upcoming March issue of the Midwest edition.] Architects Benjamin Wood and Carlos Zapata modernized 1920s-era Soldier Field in 2003, but the Bears’ desire to add more seating lost out to the city’s imperative to preserve Soldier Field’s historic colonnades. The $690 million renovation lost its National Historic Landmark status anyway in 2006. It’s unclear who’s studying the possible expansion for the Mayor, but whoever reviews the plan may have to lock heads with public scrutiny as intense as the stadium’s design challenges.
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Eavesdrop> Keep In Touch, BK!

Blair Kamin. We’ve poked fun at Blair Kamin numerous times, from his nerdy-sexy picture next to his byline to our disparate views on PoMo design. Despite all that, his contribution as an architectural critic and historian is quite profound and very important for the Midwest. Kamin’s announcement that he’s taking a leave of absence from the Chicago Tribune for a fellowship at Harvard made us panicky. Newspapers are trimming staff faster than design firms during the recession. We just hope that with or without Kamin, the Tribune recognizes the value of his work and keeps that legacy alive.
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Bye Bye Blair!

Blair Kamin. Pulitzer-prize winning Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin had better go hat shopping. He’s got another feather for his chapeau! A super prestigious Neiman Fellowship from Harvard! “My aspirations for the fellowship are straightforward: To return to my job refreshed and refocused, so I can provide our readers with the most sophisticated, discerning coverage of architecture—and, in the process, to demonstrate anew why newspapers should cover this inescapable art,” Kamin told Time Out Chicago. Congratulations Blair. Don’t get tempted to stay on the coast. The Midwest needs you!
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Kamin: Humana Resurrecta

Blair Kamin seems to have joined the reconsider PoMo chorus, stating in his Sunday column that the movement “deserves a more sophisticated reappraisal.” The focus of the Tribune tribute was Michael Graves’s Humana building in Louisville, Kentucky.  By drawing comparisons to Johnson’s AT&T building in its unabashed commercialism and to Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 333 Wacker Drive for its national significance, Kamin writes that “Graves crafted a tower that could only have been built in Louisville.” The reassessment comes on the heel of Graves receiving the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for classical and traditional architecture in Chicago last month, which in turn came after last fall's PoMo Conference at New York’s Institute for Classical Architecture and Art. Seems that the classicists are going gaga for PoMo.

Yet Another Star Turn For Jeanne Gang

Watch Jeanne Gang: The Sky's the Limit on PBS. See more from WTTW DOCUMENTARIES.

Still riding the wave of publicity following her recent MacArthur genius grant win, Jeanne Gang gets the full star treatment from Chicago's public TV station WTTW. This documentary, "Jeanne Gang: The Sky's the Limit," is all praise. Blair Kamin and Stanley Tigerman figure as her head cheerleaders. It would have been nice to have someone puncture the bubble a bit, possibly interrogating Gang about architect's limits, rather than merely presenting the discipline (and Gang as one of its leading lights) as a environmental and societal savior. The documentary does show some engaging glimpses of Studio Gang's working methods and office style, so there's plenty to enjoy, even for the (mild) skeptics.

 

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Quick Clicks> Barrios, Shopping Atlantic, Blah, Egypt

Barrios with Altitude. A poetic study of the organically evolving perimeter of Bogotá, via Lebbeus Woods. Atlantic Aspirations. Forest City Ratner is still on the hunt for Atlantic Yards funding, but has sweetened the deal by tapping SHoP--who is already spiffing up the stadium and public plaza--to design B2, the first apartment building in the complex, says The Observer. Sterile Street. Blair Kamin calls out developer Joe Sitt for obliterating "bracing history" in exchange for "bland consistency" on State Street, in The Chicago Times. Impromptu Planning. In Egypt, protesters have organized a mini-city in Tahir Square, complete with urban planners. Listen to an NPR audio clip or read the related transcript.
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Eavesdrop MW 01

PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN GLASS HOUSES Word on the street is that Chicago’s modern design auctioneer extraordinaire Richard Wright and Philip Johnson Glass House executive director Christy MacLear have been spending time together. That’s a lot of design obsession for one relationship, we’re just sayin’. Moreover, what about the poor flooded Farnsworth House? Wright, it seems, prefers to rendezvous at the imitation over the original, even as its water-stained furniture is being restored. Richard—your hometown needs you! (OK, so the Glass House is actually older than Farnsworth, but we all know Johnson borrowed his best ideas.) JEALOUS MUCH? Speaking of love affairs, some architecture publicists we’ve spoken to lately are grousing that Blair Kamin has been giving too much affection (in his writings at least) to a certain attractive female architect who shall not be named. Come on boys, quit complaining. She can’t be blamed for having great curves, built or nurtured. ON TO GREENER PASTURES Mayor Daley loves to crow about how Chicago is the greenest city in the U.S. Well, he forgot about the 51st state. We should say he forgot aboot it! Sadhu Johnston, Chicago Chief Environmental Officer, stepped down on September 30 for a job in Vancouver. Oh, and Vancouver is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics! Double smarts! Hey, all you LEED APs, turn those frowns upside-down. It might be time for a career change—public sector jobs are so This Economy! Send gossip, salacious whispers, and wheat-grass shots to eavesdrop@archpaper.com
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After the flood

On September 14, the Farnsworth House was engulfed by the Fox River, sustaining significant damage to its interiors and furnishings. The house, designed by Mies van der Rohe and now a National Trust Historic Site, is reopen for tours through October 29 to benefit the restoration. According to a new blog covering the effort, estimates for repairs are still being tallied. While restoration work is proceeding, some suggest that the house should be moved to a more secure location.